As you may have heard, Reese Witherspoon, the star of movies such as “Legally Blonde” and “Walk the Line,” was out jogging recently … only to be hit by an elderly driver going 20mph. It’s always surprising when somebody falls victim to simple bad luck, but the question is: Could this have been avoided? Elderly drivers aren’t just a risk to celebrities. The number of elderly drivers is on the rise, and by 2050, they’ll be responsible for at least a quarter of all auto accidents (listen up, car insurance companies!). Even now, drivers in their eighties are considered four times as likely to get into a car accident as your average teenager. But, ironically, for different reasons. The main problem is that elderly drivers simply aren’t at 100%. Their eyesight is dimmer, or requires correction, and their reflexes aren’t as sharp as they used to be. This isn’t to imply your grandma isn’t a safe, careful driver: she likely is. But it’s simply a matter of biology: elderly drivers are less able to perceive problems or threats, and less able to react in time when they do perceive those problems. This is borne out by the statistics on elderly drivers and accidents: elderly drivers commonly get in accidents because, for example, they make a left too wide and too slowly, and get hit by an oncoming car. Another problem is elderly drivers unable to properly read signals.
For example, this video was recently shot on Philadelphia’s I-495 highway:
Yes, that’s a station wagon going the wrong way down a major highway, and it’s more common than you might like to believe!
So, how do we solve this problem? Retests? Mandatory driver’s license retirement? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. In 21st century America, you absolutely need a car to get around. You’d be surprised how many of the elderly would happily stop driving if they could; make no mistake, they’re as aware of this problem as everyone else. The question then becomes: how do elderly drivers get the groceries, go to doctor’s appointments, and otherwise do what they need to do to stay independent? It’s a difficult problem: they can’t take taxis everywhere, especially those on fixed incomes. Public transportation is spotty in many areas, and completely nonexistent in most of the country. Elder transit services can help, but they’re underfunded and exist primarily in urban areas. Some elderly drivers have pointed out that without their vehicles, it’s extremely likely they would become shut-ins unable to run their own errands or otherwise function in society. It’s a hard problem with no easy solution. But until then, if you have a senior in your family who drives, talk to them about it. Ask them how comfortable they are on the road and if there’s anything that would help make driving safer. If they don’t have a cellphone, give them a prepaid one to use in emergencies. And, above all, if they need to get somewhere and don’t think they’re able to drive, give them a lift. It’s a small price to pay for all of our safety.